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The Right Way to Collect Comic Books: Part 1 - What Makes Comic Books Valuable

Updated on August 11, 2014

The Beginning...

The comic book bug is a wily beast. It can sneak up on children and fully grown adults alike, burrow deep into their brain and lodge there for months, years, or decades. It's not an overall unpleasant experience, as the creature (CBB for short) secretes buckets of endorphins while instilling in the victim a sense of purpose, clarity of vision, and an overwhelming compulsion to spend massive portions of their hard earned (or allowanced) money on mass printed drawings of mutant humans in flamboyant garb. The afflicted "collectors" religiously pick up new issues monthly at $4 a pop and file them away in sequential order, safely guarded by a strip of cardboard and plastic bags with the defensive characteristics of saran-rap. They daydream wildly about the pile of riches they will be sitting on if they can just wait 30 years, then they can sell their prized, pristine books, buy a jet or a small island, and live out their remaining days in surrounded by luxury and beautiful people. The only problem is....20 million other people had the exact same idea!

The Reality of Comic Book Values

The trap that new collectors fall into, is they look at historical comic book prices without considering or understanding the driving forces behind them. Comic book values fluctuate much like the stock market, driving by the forces of supply and demand.

Comic books from the 1960s and earlier can be very valuable. The primary reason for this is scarcity. Comics in excellent condition are very hard to come by from those eras because 99% of the kids buying the comics didn't even think about preserving them, they just read them, reread them and then threw them out, cut pieces out, or set them on fire for want of something more interesting to do. Nowadays, the majority of comics purchased in stores will be read once (sometimes with gloves on) given a plastic sleeve, and filed away. As a result, there is a huge supply surplus for modern comics and very little demand (everyone already has the good books, so there is no one left to sell them to). The truth is: 95% of comic books from the last 25 years have a fair market value of less than their cover price.

So if age alone doesn't make comics valuable, what does?
Well supply as we discussed, can be an important factor for determining baseline prices for a comic book or series. The forces of demand can be a bit more confusing but have an enormous impact on which issues (known as key issues) in a series will be worth significant amounts of money.

What makes a 'key issue'
Key issues are not born at random. There is almost always something significant about that issue # that makes it valuable. In general, this will be something like:

  • The first time a new character appears in print
  • The death of a character
  • The first time a new or signature costume appears
  • The first issue drawn by a famous artist
  • Historical context, or addresses a key social issue

These unique characteristics of a specific issue will draw collector's to it, increasing the demand for the book while the supply remains fixed (or decreases over time). As a result, the price goes up as collectors are willing to pay higher prices to get the comic out of the hands of their previous owners.

But why, you may wonder, do different copies of the same issue sell for grossly different prices? Glad you asked, this brings us to the 3rd and arguably most important component of comic book value: Condition

Condition is Everything!

There's a reason even 8-year-olds put their comics in mylar bags: Condition is King. A comic book in mint condition can sell for multiples in excess of 100 times the value of the same comic in worse (but still readable) condition. There's a reason comic book enthusiasts are obsessive about their collections. A single dent in the cover of a book could cost an owner literally thousands of dollars or more in value. But why does condition have such a dramatic effect on price?

Condition affects values by altering both supply and demand

Individual books are assigned a grade when being considered for purchase or sale. They are graded on a 10 point scale with a 10 being a completely flawless book (less than 1 in 100 books that just came off the printing press could earn this grade.) As books age, they naturally deteriorate. They can also be damaged by tough, rough handling, or environmental factors like heat or humidity. The condition of a comic book deteriorates continuously throughout it's life span. This degradation can be slowed by care and diligence but never stopped. As a result, the older a book is, the fewer pristine copies will exist. As a result, they will be a smaller supply of books at the top of the grading scale, thus making them more valuable.

From a demand standpoint, collectors are naturally attracted to the best and the rarest. As a result, there is much more demand for books rated 9 or higher than for lower grades, acting further to drive prices up. Even among modern comic books, certified top graded books can be worth $100 or more while and average copy is worth less than $1. So read carefully and don't forget to store your books properly.

So there you have it: The three primary factors of comic book value. In my next installment, I talk about the best way to approach comic collecting from the start to maximize your chance of having a positive return on your investment.


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Where to get good deals on comic books

With so many people looking to buy and hold high value books, and even casual hobbyists aware of the value of the books they own, you may wonder whether there are any real deals to be found. The answer of course, is yes but you have to know where to find them. Here are a few good suggestions:

Classified ads and Craigslist

Even people who are pretty attached to their comic books may run out of space or be in a bit of a bind for cash, and post their comic books for sale. Even though an individual book may be worth $10, it's very time consuming to try to sell books one at a time, so if you're willing to buy a whole collection, you can save a ton of money relative to the true retail value of these books. I have friends who do nothing but buy big collections and then resell them in smaller chunks. You can often buy collections at discounts of 70-90% off the market value of the individual books.

One of my friends' favorite strategies is to buy a collection, lets say a few thousand books. He'll identify the few books that are the most likely to appreciate in value. If he paid $500 for the collection, he'll hold on to the best books, and sort the rest of the collection into meaningful chunks or "lots" like runs of books from the same serious and sell them on ebay, usually turning a profit even without selling the highest value books in the collection. So he puts $500 in, gets $800 back from sales, holds onto the best books, and now goes and buys a bigger collection for $800.

People that are persistent and hard working can turn $500 into $25,000 or more in a single year by doing this repeatedly.

If you're wondering where to sell your books, a good place is ebay (because they're tons of buyers) but the fees+ shipping can eat up 15-20% of your sales price, so you need to have gotten a good deal on the books in the first place to make money. Otherwise, once you start making other contacts and friends in the comic book world, it'll be easy to sell chunks of a collection to other collectors once you know what sort of books they're looking for.

Good luck and happy collecting!

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